Pilot lost in World War II finally home in Harnett County
In 1944, Lt. Fulton Lanier disappeared while flying a C-87 over the Himalayan Mountains, a notoriously harsh route nicknamed “The Hump” by pilots who survived it.
Back home in Harnett County, his family prayed for news, never knowing if the plane crashed or took enemy fire, clueless about whether the 27-year-old they nicknamed “Runt” had died or been captured.
Even half a century after World War II, when Tibetan hunters discovered the wrecked aircraft on a glacier, the Laniers found incomplete relief. DNA testing identified Lanier’s crewmen, but not Lanier. His family mourned at a group burial in Arlington National Cemetery in 1998.
But on Thursday, after another discovery in Tibet and more advanced DNA testing, the soldier from Buies Creek finally found rest in Harnett County soil.
Along U.S. 421, a bugler played “Taps” for the pilot who made the long road back from the Himalayas to the Cape Fear River. Nieces and nephews who knew Lanier when they were children bowed their heads, grown white in the time it took their uncle to return.
“I can’t begin to describe, it’s been so long,” said Virginia Powers of Wilmington, accepting the flag from Lanier’s coffin. “I wish it could have been sooner so his parents could know.”
Lanier was the youngest in his family and small as a boy, earning his nickname. Even as a 6-footer, playing football at Lenoir-Rhyne College, the name stuck. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, served in the Asian theater then as a flight instructor in Texas before volunteering to return to the Far East.
On his last trip home in 1943, he showed off his .45-caliber pistol, taking aim at the glass balls on weather vanes around town.
He’d flown “The Hump” before, bringing food, ammunition and medicine from India to Chinese nationalist troops fighting the Japanese. On Jan. 31, 1944, other pilots logged rain, sleet and snow along the treacherous route, where weather information and radio contact was scarce.
When Lanier’s plane failed to return to India, the five on board got listed as missing. At the end of the war, they were declared dead.
Lanier was posthumously promoted to captain, and his family moved on with lingering uncertainty.
In 1998, after the first discovery at 14,000 feet, the remains of all crewmen found were buried in a single casket at Arlington. Powers and the rest of the family never expected even that much finality, and they considered it the final chapter.
Then in 2015, after new remains were discovered in Tibet and fresh testing confirmed Lanier’s identity, still preserved at that frigid altitude, Harnett County could finally bestow proper honors.
Dozens of motorcycles rumbled down 421 to the cemetery, and its leather-clad riders came from as far as Tennessee to circle Lanier’s grave, holding flagpoles. Another dozen Chinese citizens from around North Carolina joined the ceremony dressed in black.
“Capt. Lanier fought with us, side by side, against the fascists,” said Jack Lu of Cary. “Probably my father or my grandfather would have died without Capt. Lanier’s help. We felt we should be here.”
Lanier’s burial came on a hot day, temperatures nearing 90 degrees, the sort a boy from Buies Creek would recognize as home.